MBA Research

Trend #40: Increased Scrutiny of Employee Actions

While professional and personal lives have often been kept separate, the prevalence of internet has increased awareness of employees’ extracurricular activities and begun to blur these boundaries. Employers can easily become aware of who their employees are and what they do. The damage from a scandal, unfavorable publicity, or legal trouble is more permanent and detrimental than ever, with news spreading at the speed of light and negative events permanently recorded and accessible to the entire world. For these reasons, it has become commonplace to heavily scrutinize the behavior of employees, both in the office and outside of it.

How do companies examine their employees? What is beneficial for them to know? What are they legally allowed to know? Generally, businesses should be aware of employees engaging in any sort of risky activities that could bring negative effects to the organization. Those negative effects can be in terms of productivity, public image, or legal liability. Many of these issues can be uncovered before someone is even hired. Employers generally run background checks to find out about potential employees’ criminal history, past employment, education, test scores/licensure, credit reports, etc. – but most of those require explicit permission from the potential employee. With some of these checks, such as criminal record and credit reports, employers are required by law to advise the applicant in advance of taking action that they may be taking adverse action based on the “credit report” and are required to provide a copy of the report so that they have a chance to contact the courts or credit agency to correct errors in records or identification. The employer must also communicate that they have taken adverse action after providing time to the applicant to contact the employer that they are trying to correct inaccuracies in the records. 

Increasingly, companies are turning to social media as a de facto background check. Many people do not even realize how public and readily available their social media presences are. Performing a search before hiring someone can reveal whether or not the interviewee’s online profile includes anything illegal, reprehensible, or incongruous with the company values. 

Once hired, employees are not yet free from the watchful eye of their employers. During working hours, managers want to know how workers are spending their time online. The use of social media and other non-work related sites during paid hours is a problem for employers who expect productivity and are worried about abuse of paid work time time. Organizations generally have the right to monitor the way their employees use company resources, including email, Internet use, and working hours. Most companies have a policy in place regarding when and how they can surveil employees’ email and computer use. They reserve the right to monitor and impose consequences on those that violate policies regarding computer use. Policies often ban employees from viewing inappropriate materials, engaging in personal conversations, or visiting non-work related websites. Employees are generally required to sign off on the company’s policy so that the company legally has the right to access and use information regarding their Internet use. A well-worded, specific policy is important to protecting businesses since surveillance of private information can be a gray area if not clearly defined. 

Outside of working hours, people are not exempt from employer scrutiny. Businesses may need to be aware of what employees are publishing on the Internet to protect themselves. Content that employees post can be problematic for employers who may feel that social media posts are disparaging, inappropriate, or could reflect badly on the organization as a whole. If an employee posts something that could be deemed inappropriate or detrimental to the company, organizations may have the right to terminate him/her – the First Amendment protects the legal right to free speech but not the right to speak freely while maintaining one’s employment. Social media accounts, personal blogs, and websites can all be monitored if made available and public. Businesses have the ability to protect themselves from those who cause them damage, whether intentionally or not. 

Employers’ rights to monitor off-duty conduct are not unlimited, though. Some states prevent companies from firing employees for engaging in conduct outside of work if it is lawful. For example, if employees post photos on their social media pages of them using a legal substance such as alcohol, employers cannot necessarily fire them, unless the consumption of alcohol is related to that employee’s work or the business’s interest. Employees who discuss wages or working conditions online are also often protected due to labor laws. Companies need to be familiar with their state’s particular laws regarding off-duty conduct to avoid any costly litigation. Further, businesses should be consistent in their handling of discipline when such issues arise. 

Another aspect of employee conduct that is heavily scrutinized is research. Research is increasingly done online, which brings with it a new set of ethical requirements. Informed consent is an important aspect of any research study, but it is more difficult to ensure it has been obtained online than it is to do so in person. The Internet makes it less clear what information is public and private. Research studies should be designed to protect the company from any potential problems by obtaining as much permission as possible when dealing with private information. Furthermore, when privacy permission is obtained, companies must make it clear what that permission entails. For example, if a researcher is granted permission to use an individual’s data, does this permission apply to all members of the research department, or just the specific researcher in question? What about other members of the company or industry as a whole? How can that data be used? 

Well-written privacy statements and terms of agreement are necessary to protect companies in situations such as these. With the cost of doing research in today’s landscape, businesses cannot afford to make ethical mistakes and should provide significant oversight to ensure ethical research principles are upheld. 

In the Classroom

Students may not truly understand the future impact that their online presence can have on their careers and personal lives and on their places of employment. Have students conduct online research to identify situations in which businesses have acted/re-acted to postings of job applicants or employees. Have students work in small groups to share their findings.

Students need to be aware that the Internet blurs the lines between their private and public lives and that nothing online is truly private. Students can perform an online search of themselves using their names. When they see what information about them is already publicly available, they may be motivated to use discretion in the future. Learning to be professional online, including on-the-clock and off-duty conduct, is a crucial skill. 

Students should also be aware of their rights and what is legal and illegal in situations regarding privacy and off-duty conduct. Ethical research practices also affect students, as they will most likely engage in some sort of study as either participants or researchers during the course of their lives.